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North to Alaska: Las Vegas to Salt Lake City

The first day of our road trip to Alaska was not exactly the most exciting. However, it would’ve been far too long of a day had we tried to drive from Las Vegas to Jackson Hole. In fact, starting off slowly and with no real rush meant that we were able to begin on a very relaxed note, which was nice given that it would soon be a lot more intense.

The drive to Salt Lake is dead simple, albeit rather boring and long. It was 430 miles from our house to the hotel which took about 6 hours. Since we’ve done this drive a few times, there was no need to stop and sightsee along the way. One of my favorite parts of driving in Utah is the 80 mile/hr speed limit on the I-15. Pedal to the metal, Mama!

We stayed at Hotel Monaco, which was probably one of the nicest and most expensive hotels on our entire journey. Our room had great views of the city and the children loved that they offer “goldfish companions”. For dinner, we walked to our favorite pizza restaurant, Settebello. Then, we tucked in early so we could get on the road first thing the next day. 

Up next — Day 2: Salt Lake to The Grand Tetons 

 

The Car Cruise: North to Alaska

Recently, I wrote about an idea called “The Car Cruise” — a road trip that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Since spring and summer holidays are rapidly approaching, I wanted to finally share some of these trips we’ve taken. Although it might seem daunting to travel long distances with children in a car, I promise it’s not that bad! All it takes is some proper planning, making sure to not overdo it and factoring in some fun activities like visiting local parks, museums, playgrounds or simply getting a special treat after a long journey. And truly, the same principles apply for those traveling solo or as a couple.

Perhaps one of our most grand drives to date came to be around two summers ago when my husband had a work trip in Calgary. I had been waiting for a reason to drive to Alaska for my annual visit home and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Driving the infamous Alcan highway is definitely a rite of passage for all Alaskans and I was the only one in my family that hadn’t done it. Here was my chance, even if I’d have to do over half of the trip on my own with 3 kids!

As I looked at the map, I realized we’d be passing a bunch of national parks between Las Vegas and Calgary and it seemed silly to not see them. So, I decided that our stopping points would be Salt Lake City, the Grand Tetons/Jackson Hole, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. Then we’d spend a few days touring around Calgary and Banff (while my husband worked) before heading up to Fairbanks, Alaska with him via Grand Prairie, Muncho Lake and Haines Junction. All in all, we would be driving a little over 3500 miles.

I imagine most people would plan a trip like this many months if not a year away, but that wasn’t an option for us. First things first, I ordered The Milepost, the most famous Alcan guide book that graces many a coffee table in Alaskan households. Then I started booking our accommodations, as the trip was less than two months away (eek!) and many of the best hotels were already fully booked. To make the most of time, we would have only one night in each place (except for Calgary) and we’d focus on visiting one or two sites before moving on to our next destination. This was a bit tricky given that Yellowstone and Glacier are enormous parks, but the point of the car cruise is to get a taste of each place. We can always return for a longer visit later!

As for packing, we each brought a week’s worth of clothing, with the intention of doing laundry once we got to Calgary. I tried to keep things as streamlined as possible since we’d have to haul everything in and out of different places daily. I also filled reusable shopping bags with food and drink provisions. This included an electric kettle, reusable plates, cutlery, cups, mugs, dish soap, granola, oatmeal, granola bars, coffee, tea, bread, bagels, boxed milks, wine and lots of other snacks. The idea was that we’d make our own breakfast daily, make some lunches (sometimes by visiting a grocery to get fresh fruits, salumi and cheese) and mostly plan to eat out for dinner. Dining out for every meal can be very costly and not so great for our waistlines, so I try to keep it to a minimum whenever we travel. 

Finally, I had to figure out what we were going to drive. My husband wasn’t keen on the idea of putting so much mileage or wear + tear on any of our vehicles, as the road can also be notoriously rough. So, I looked into all sorts of options: from renting a car or motorhome to buying a car for someone in Alaska that I could drive up to them. However, I quickly found out it’s surprisingly difficult to find rental companies that allow you to drive through Canada to Alaska. Motorhome were out because they were incredibly expensive and honestly, I wasn’t that excited about driving something so big and slow. In the end, we decided to sell our Volvo XC-90 at the end of the trip and fly home. It was a bit of a risk, but thankfully it sold pretty quickly since there aren’t that many Volvos in Alaska. Although I would’ve loved to take the alternate route back and drive the Cassiar Highway home, it would’ve been a much longer and more intense journey. It guess it just means that I’ll have to do the drive again someday!

Next up — Day 1: Las Vegas to Salt Lake City

The Car Cruise

With summer nearly approaching and endless travel possibilities on the horizon, I wanted to share something we’ve been doing lately that I’ve dubbed as: ‘The Car Cruise.’ Much like an actual cruise, it’s a road trip that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Whether there’s a lack of finances, time or both — it’s a fun, quick way to travel. We’ve taken many of these road trips over the past several years, so I thought might be helpful to share some of our experiences and travel tips.

Honestly, I’d love to be able to take months off at a time and tour the world slowly, but so far that’s not been an option for us. All of our recent road trips have had time limits and tight budgets! But, because I’m determined to see as much of the world as I can — I’ve learned to make it work. These constraints have forced me to focus on seeing as much as possible with the least amount of time. And just like cruising on water, this condensed method allows for a “taste” of each place; which at the very least, creates a visual image and a ‘feeling’ for areas that you may want to revisit. But unlike a cruise ship, it can be completely tailored to meet each traveler’s specific needs. 

All it takes is some solid research and an adventurous spirit. Besides, planning for travel is half of the fun, right?!

Here’s how it’s done:

  • First, decide your starting and ending points, then find what is interesting in between. I like to come up with a title that encompasses what we’re doing, ie. “North to Alaska,” “The American Southwest,” “Andiamo- 7 days in Italy” and then go from there.
  • Consider how many hours a day you are willing to drive. Since most of my road trips have been just me and 3 kids, I found that 6 hours max in the car is what they can handle right now. Some days we only drove 3 and others we pushed to 10. The latter were not fun at all, but sometimes you just have to power through! Really pay attention to mileage and timing, as well as factoring in stops for food, bathroom breaks, fueling up, or in my case — photo ops!
  • Next, figure out where to stay. I look everywhere from AirBNB to Expedia to TripAdvisor to blogs to friends and even Instagram! Book ASAP, as the best places always fill up early. On some of these trips, sometimes the accommodations are roadside motels that you’d normally never consider. Remember, it’s part of the charm! 
  • Hone in on one or two must-see places for each stop (these might be what the area is famous for) and then seek out something unique or out of the ordinary to do. I almost always run a search for unusual, bizarre, or local secrets to try to discover “the other side.” HA! If traveling with children, always find an activity or place that they will enjoy visiting, too. And if all else fails, take them to a local park. It’s interesting to see how different they can be from place to place.
  • We try to eat local and avoid chains whenever possible, so scour the internet for the best restaurants in each stop.  I wish I could say I’m a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” kind of eater, but I can finally admit that I like knowing where to go in advance. There’s nothing worse than rolling into town after a long, tiring day, with 3 whiny, starving children (and possibly husband) and then having to sift through Yelp or Zagat in the car or hotel room. Instead, I make a list of any and all restaurants that keep popping up during my research phase. I love to search for “Travel Guide __(wherever I’m going)__” and see what pops up. Generally there are travel magazine articles, as well as personal bloggers that post these. Between the two, I usually find a decent list of recommendations to get me started. Then I do my own research to see what suits our family best. I use this method for shops and sights as well.
  • Make an itinerary. I’m fairly organized in an old-school way in that I still print everything out and put it in an envelope that I travel with. I always have a basic plan written down of what I want to see or do each day. The list always includes restaurant options, shops to visit, things I might want to buy, and perhaps most importantly — phone numbers, contact info, reservation numbers, etc. If for some reason there’s no cell service or I’ve lost my phone, I can still access things the old-fashioned way.
  • Along those same lines, print or buy PAPER maps. Yes, it’s possible that they might be completely unnecessary — but trust me when I say, as someone that has been stranded with a non-functioning Sat-Nav in the middle of nowhere with no cell-reception and not another car in sight, they just might come in handy.
  • To help save money and morning stress, we always plan to make our own breakfasts and sometimes even lunches. We fill a large bin (or reusable grocery bags) with an electric kettle, coffee with a pour over filter, tea, sugar, reusable mugs, bowls, silverware, dish soap, granola, oatmeal packets, cereals, protein bars, dried fruit + nuts, chips, crackers, bread and peanut butter and jelly. I also like to pack an emergency provisions bin with water, wine – HAHA, toilet paper, wet wipes, plus a roadside emergency kit just in case. 
  • And finally, this is probably my biggest tip of all: you can always go back. If for some reason it becomes impossible to see and do everything planned, never fear. It just means that you’re meant to return! 

Up next, I’ll be sharing some of our “Car Cruise” road trips with you….

Travel Guide: Turks and Caicos

The Turks + Caicos are a group of islands located in the West Indies. About an hour flight from Miami, this British Overseas Territory is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world — Grace Bay. With its baby-soft white sand, crystal clear turquoise water and gentle waves — it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic beach could exist!

We spent 9 days visiting the most populated island of Providenciales in January 2016. Although I’d hoped to island hop, it was too complicated and expensive for our family of 5. Instead, we kept it simple and explored nearly every inch of “Provo.” Prior to leaving, I studied the island in depth and it seemed that Grace Bay was the most popular area to stay. After visiting, I would have to agree! We rented a condo there, only a block away from the beach. Every morning we would bike or walk over for a swim and then each afternoon we would drive to a different area of the island.


Our first excursion took us to the Northwest Point. The freeway eventually turns into a sandy, one-lane road that ends at the beach. The area was completely deserted but covered in large conch shells, which Max and I enjoyed picking up.


From there, we followed the coast back as far as we could, enjoying some of the more local scenes on the island. We also stopped at the infamous da Conch Shack and Rum Bar. The service was lousy but it was a fun place to grab an afternoon drink.

The next day, we took a boat (through Caribbean Cruising) from Leeward Marina to the iguana inhabited island of Little Water Cay. Never have I seen so many iguanas in one place! There’s a small visitor’s center with a few guides, but mostly we had the island to ourselves. We didn’t take a guided tour, but instead followed the boardwalks through the jungle and explored some of the private beaches on our own.

Another fun and educational outing was the Caicos Conch Farm. Although nearly every restaurant in Provo has some form of conch on the menu, I really had no idea what was in a conch shell until visiting this non-profit farm. The tour begins with a biology lesson about the conch (which is actually an edible sea snail), followed by a walk around their hatcheries. The educators explain and show all of the different stages of a conch’s life cycle, what they eat and how they reproduce. They also talk about how some species are endangered and how they are being over-harvested.


The rest of the time, we drove around to visit different beaches. On the south side of the island we discovered Chalk Sound, with hundreds of rock islands in a shallow, turquoise lagoon. It wasn’t particularly accessible but was interesting to look at.

Next we stopped for a swim at Sapodilla Bay and Beach, which we found to be a great area for children.

On one of our last days, we drove to Malcolm’s Road Beach. The road was a bit rough but our tiny, Fiat-like car managed. The beach was a little different than the others, with golden sand and a large reef. 


Lastly, a few more images from stunning Grace Bay.



TIPS + SUGGESTIONS

STAY: Grace Bay, hands down. There’s a stretch of hotels all along the beach and plenty of rental properties to choose from. Restaurants, bars, shops and the ocean are all mostly in walking or biking distance. The only other options I would recommend would be staying at the luxury resort of Amanyara (but it is very secluded and on the opposite side of the island) or find a house rental near Sapodilla or Taylor Bay (if you are looking to be far away from touristy areas.)

TRANSPORTATION: We rented a car (which I would recommend if you want to see the island), however the rental process was a nightmare. We had to wait around for an hour and half because they didn’t have a car available (despite having booked months in advance) and we barely fit in the car they gave us. If you really want to relax and stay situated in Grace Bay, you could certainly get by without a car.

EAT: I can’t say we had any truly outstanding meals while we were in the Turks and Caicos, but we had plenty that were good enough. We stocked up on groceries at the Graceway Gourmet store in Grace Bay which allowed us to eat breakfast and/or lunch at our condo. We also went to the local grocery in the middle of the island just to check it out. It was definitely cheaper but didn’t have the selection of organic and natural items that I wanted. Most evenings we would go out for an early dinner. Some of the places we tried were: Lupo, Bella Luna, Chopsticks, Da Conch Shack, Garam Masala, Flamingo Cafe, Somewhere, and Lemon2Go.

DO: Grace Bay Beach, Caicos Conch Farm, Iguana Island in Little Water Cay (bring insect repellant – the mosquitoes were thick in the jungle), visit the other islands in Turks & Caicos, snorkel in the reefs. Some things we didn’t get to do but that looked fun were parasailing, kayaking through the mangroves and riding on the Provo Ponies.

BRING: Insect repellant. I had read that no-seeums were a bit of a problem on the beach and while we did get bit here and there, it wasn’t too bad. Money! It’s quite an expensive island to visit. Since everything has to be shipped in, you’ll find that a 6 pack of beer runs nearly $20 and regular milk was over $8/gallon. Eating out was even pricier!

Cambridge Day Trip: Waddesdon Manor

Perhaps I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey — but lately, I’ve found myself wanting to experience England in a more traditional sense. I suppose because we’re always there to see family, our visits are often centered around just that. Instead, I’ve been envisioning a trip that involves a stately home, roaming the beautiful countryside via horseback, adorned in proper attire, followed by afternoon tea with scones (pronounced: scons) slathered with an obscene amount of clotted cream and a touch of jam. There’s a hunting dog curled up by my feet and to my side is a pile of books that I’ll read by a fire, once I’ve finished stuffing my gob… I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s time we do a few touristy things too!

This past summer we decided to brave the nightmare, errr… I mean nuisance of driving in England and a find a stunning estate where I could pretend to be Lady Mary. My father in-law (who is always up for anything) recommended Waddesdon Manor — a gorgeous, country house in Buckinghamshire, about an hour and half drive from Cambridge.

This Renaissance-style manor was built for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the 1870’s. Essentially a French chateau in the middle of the English countryside, it’s much like those found in the Loire Valley. It’s surrounded by various gardens, wooded forests, an aviary, a dairy, playground, stables, summer houses and much more. Inside, Waddesdon Manor is an impressive home made for entertaining guests; with ornate rooms, wine cellars containing 15,000 bottles of historic wine and a vast collection of antiques, art and treasures.  

The floors are adorned with the reddest carpet and the walls are covered with English and Dutch masterpieces.

The drawing rooms are all richly decorated.

 An austere dining table in the wine cellar is juxtaposed with an extravagantly dressed table on the main floor.

There are separate areas in the house for men and women. Above are some of the weapons displayed in the armory of the Bachelor’s Wing.

Downstairs, there’s an unusual, musical elephant automaton

A grand staircase and billiard room.

One of the small rooms off a bedroom. Perhaps this is where I shall take my tea and scones?

A lady’s bed and (wooden) loo. I’ll pass on reading by that fireplace, though!

 Back outside, there are parterre gardens and fountains with views of the countryside.

The aviary.

The children enjoyed the walk through the wooded forest towards the playground areas and stables. Be sure to find all of the hidden play areas. 

While I didn’t exactly live up my original fantasy, visiting Waddesdon Manor was definitely an afternoon well-spent. It was so interesting to see firsthand how the noble families lived. This just means that next year I’ll find have to find a horse, some riding apparel and an endless, green countryside… 

 

DETAILS//TIPS

Waddesdon Manor
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
England, HP18 0JH
Tel: 01296 820414

  • Driving is not permitted on the property. However, they provide a shuttle bus or there’s a footpath, if you’d prefer to walk in.
  • Expect to visit for at least 2-3 hours. 
  • Tickets for visiting the house are twice as much and have a timed entry, but include visiting the grounds. 
  • Although we did not eat on our visit, there are several different places to purchase food and drink, if needed.
  • If you’re traveling with children, be sure to seek out all of the playground areas including a giant slide and zipline.
  • Prams/strollers are not allowed inside the house.

Alaska: Flying over the Alaska Range

One of my favorite things to do when I’m back home is to go flying with my dad. He has been a bush pilot since 1970 and over the years, he has shown me the world from many different vantage points. I grew up flying with him to remote areas of Alaska and depending upon the season, we’d land with floats on water, skis in the winter or we’d bump along in tundra tires on a rough, homemade runway in the middle of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t realize how special this was because it was simply what we did — but as an adult living in the “Lower 48” now, I feel especially grateful for such a unique experience. It definitely helped shape my love of travel and flying!

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Alaska has multiple mountain ranges spanning across most of the state, but the largest and perhaps most well known is the Alaska Range. It houses North America’s highest peak, Denali (aka Mt. McKinley @20, 310 ft. high) and on a clear day, it’s truly a magnificent sight to see. Last summer we flew around it and landed in the park (photos coming soon), so this year we decided to go slightly east, along the Wood River towards Mount Deborah and Yanert Glacier. Finally, we stopped for a picnic near Gold King, an old Air Force communications site.

180360_flyingovertananaflatsAfter leaving Fairbanks, we flew over the Tanana Flats. (above) 

180360_flyingtoalaskarangeAfter the flats, we crossed over creeks and valleys on our way towards the mountains.

180360_alaskarange5Taking photos in a small plane is pretty challenging! It’s bumpy; the windows are reflective; there are often wings in the way, etc. Even so, I like the way it creates an almost painterly effect in the images.

180360_alaskarange4The Wood River.

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180360_alaskarange10Heading into the range.

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It’s easy to feel really small and insignificant amongst these massive mountains.

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Peaks for days.

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A wider view of Mount Deborah and Yanert Glacier.

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Meltwater from the glacier that feeds into the Wood River.

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 Following the Wood River back out.

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Taiga (aka boreal forest) covers much of this area.

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A quick stop near Gold King for lunch and a visit with some of my dad’s friends who have a cabin here.

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Below is my dad’s Piper Super Cub — a 2 seater, single-engine monoplane.

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Flying back to Fairbanks.

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On a side note: I found this impressive video about 2 guys that climbed Mt. Deborah last year. I like to think I’m adventurous, but then I see something like this and realize I’ve got a lonnnng way to go… 🙂

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